I’m conflicted about direct democracy. I want to stand in the tradition of the California progressives who, in a 1911 special election, brought ballot initiatives to the state as a way of fighting the corrupt influence of the Southern Pacific Railroad in Sacramento. But when Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper can get a silly and dangerous break-the-state-into-thirds proposition on the ballot, I start to think again.
Come November, we will vote on Draper’s Cal-3 measure. It’s a monumental proposition — destroying a state — and such a notion shouldn’t be decided by a one-time, simple majority vote, not least because we the people might not get the nuances of how destructive it could be. It’s probably unconstitutional, and should it pass (unlikely) and survive legal review (unlikely), it would create hordes of economic, political and cultural losers and very few winners. (The latter would be mostly in the new state of Northern California, where Draper lives, surprise, surprise.)
Besides, we’ve settled this before. In the 158 years since statehood, there have been more than 200 attempts to carve up California. (One, the Pico Act of 1859, named after its sponsor Andrés Pico, came close: It passed the Legislature and was signed by Gov. John B. Weller, only to be scuttled by the Civil War.)
Draper himself has tried and failed. His 2014 attempt (six Californias) didn’t attract enough petition signatures to qualify, despite a $5.2-million investment on the billionaire’s part in the petition campaign. To get Cal 3 on the ballot, Draper framed it as a statute rather than a constitutional amendment; the former requires fewer signatures. It still cost him about $2 million.
What an outrageous waste of time, money and political energy, especially when it’s clear that a unified Golden State is a crucial counterbalance to Washington.
The Cal-3 initiative, then, isn’t some brilliant policy idea Sacramento is too hidebound to consider. Rather than confronting “special interests,” the proposition represents one: Draper — a guy who is rich enough to meddle in our lives while making a mockery of a process designed to help the little guy.
“Because we have a lot of rich people in this state,” UC Riverside political science professor Shaun Bowler explained last month, “we got a lot of people who go, ‘Hey, I’ve got $1 million burning a hole in my pocket. You know what I think should happen with the state? I think we should make Klingon the state language.’”
Bowler’s analogy is over-the-top, but it actually understates the numbers in play. Draper, remember, spent five times that amount while failing to get his 2014 effort on the ballot. And once a proposal qualifies, the “yes” and “no” campaigns that ensue cost many millions more. The high price of proposition politics means the rich get special access to our lawmaking apparatus.
Of course, not all initiatives are as pernicious as Draper’s self-serving dream of a divided state. In 2016, more than 100 measures were proposed; 17 qualified, including one I enthusiastically supported: Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana.
As an example of direct democracy, 64 makes for an interesting case. Legalization had long had the support of a majority of state voters, and yet our elected representatives found it too politically risky to touch. Without a ballot measure, it was unlikely ever to happen. Still, however righteous the cause, Proposition 64 was also an example of special interest, big money politicking.
By one count, the victorious “Yes on 64” campaign spent $15.9 million; and its opponents, $1.4 million. Regular people surely donated, but so did rich ideologues (Sean Parker, Napster’s co-founder, gave $7.3 million) as well as entrepreneurs eyeing a legal pot market potentially worth billions.
Not only that, but in 2016, Proposition 64 was merely the fourth most costly measure on the ballot. In all, more than $480 million was spent on the year’s 17 initiatives. No other state comes close to such numbers.
“There are ways to make the process less costly and more democratic,” Joe Mathews, California editor of Zócalo Public Square, wrote in a May column. A citizens commission could “study regular people’s suggested initiatives and put the best ones on the ballot, instead of requiring costly petitions.” Or the signature-gathering deadline could be extended. Proponents now have only six months to get hundreds of thousands of valid signatures. If they had, say, two years, it would bring down the cost dramatically.
The Public Policy Institute of California reports that 72% of state residents “think it is a good thing that a majority of voters can make laws and change public policies by passing initiatives.” But we also think the process could be improved.
Cal 3 might be the change agent we need. It’s an outrageous waste of time, money and political energy, especially now, when it’s clear that a unified Golden State is a crucial counterbalance to Washington.
A hundred years ago, the initiative process cracked open state government for the people. It was never meant to function as a rich man’s toy.
David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion.
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